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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Just another voice joining in

The past week has been one of anger, hopelessness, disgust, anxiety, and more anger. Those of us (and that's many of us) who have been following the events (and non-events) in the aftermath of the rape in Delhi probably have gone through all these emotions and many more along the same continuum. There are commentaries, questions and observations across media, from the strident campaigns on Times Now and CNN-IBN to the columns in The Hindu and on Kafila. Women and young men in Delhi and elsewhere talk about this over coffee and express their outrage on twitter and facebook. A lethargic and slow acting government stoked the anger by not responding soon enough or with enough conviction and determination. Shutting down metro stations and issuing media advisories about "restrained" coverage. Is restraint possible in such situations? Restraint in action perhaps but certainly not in expression of outrage.

And then we all carry our fears and hopes into the night and wonder when and whether things will ever change.

So often I am asked, as a mother of two young women, what I tell my daughters as they venture out into the big bad world and begin to deal with the realities of entrenched attitudes and the vulnerabilities that come with being a woman. All through their growing up, they have not heard anyone from within the family tell them to think or act a certain way because of their gender. They have attended schools where gender sensitivity is a big part of the agenda, and in a way, this could leave them a little unprepared to deal with gender based discrimination on a personal level. On the other hand, this could also give them a certain inner strength, an assumption of equality and equal rights as they make their own decisions.

So what then do I tell them? Do I tell them to "be careful" and avoid situations that place them at risk? Do I tell them to dress "sensibly" and not go out too late alone? While I myself might not think twice about claiming my right to go where I want and wear what I please, I find myself biting back words of caution when it comes to my children. I find that I do want them to be careful, while also resenting the fact that we live in a world where the onus of staying safe is placed on women (also see Why Loiter? for more on this). I hate that there are eyes and hands and predatory bodies that see women (and vulnerable boys) as objects to be looked at and taken at will.

So yes, I don't tell them to do anything different, but I hope they can stay safe. I want them to be able to attend late night movie shows and enjoy the freedom of being young in a big city. And get into a bus if they want to, or walk down the street at midnight, with their friends, or alone, without fear, and without fear of my anxiety.

I know that it's going to take a long time before the streets are safe by habit, before we as a society respect every individual in body and mind.

So in truth, my mind is never completely without fear. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Parent trap

Before one decides to become a parent, I think one should stop and read a set of caveats--sort of like a "Buyer Beware" checklist. When it comes to starting a family, most people articulate it in terms of "having a baby" rather than "becoming a parent". The first brings with it images of a gurgling infant, blowing bubbles and sleeping quietly in a crib attired in frilly clothing, combined with the sense of touch-tender skin and baby-powder smells, all against a soft-focus backdrop in mysteriously appropriate pastel shades. The second--and most of us rarely pause to consider this before we jump into the decision--brings to mind sleepless nights, smelly diapers and a mound of washing,  school choices and adolescent trauma, with career and social life lurking somewhere in the distant background. No soft focus here. The lights are either harsh or throw cold, dark shadows.

Don't get me wrong. I've (clearing of throat here) loved the experience, despite having gone through all of the above. The point I'm trying to make is--while the first set of images a few of the second quickly get relegated to the stuff of nostalgia and photo albums, to be smiled over and laughed about, a large part of the second set just morphs into different forms of heartache over the years. And that's what nothing ever prepares you for.

From agonizing over why the baby refuses to stop crying to holding your own tears back when she falls off the swing and hurts her knee to worrying yourself sick when she's not home at the usual time to experiencing (several times magnified) her rejections and disappointments...it never ends. It's like you're living your own traumas and disappointments all over again, only this time you feel helpless because you're on the outside, watching helplessly while someone else is feeling all those feelings. You know, from the vantage point of age, that this will pass, and in the big picture of life, many things don't matter, but you remember only too keenly what it was like (and that nothing anyone says can change how you feel).

In a New Yorker article writer Salman Rushdie talks about the first few months of his going underground, and describes an evening of pure agony when he is unable to reach his 9-year-old son Zafar and begins to imagine the worst. Recalling Orwell's 1984,  he says, "The worst thing in the world is different for every individual. For Winston Smith, in Orwell's '1984', it was rats. For him, in a cold Welsh cottage, it was an unanswered phone call."

He goes on to describe the two hours of agonizing uncertainty when repeated phone calls yield no answer. This is in the first days after the fatwa was issued, when demonstrations against him and his book were at their peak, and it was feared that his family too may be under threat.

That's one part of it; the sense that you are no longer independent and your actions have consequences for others. Your decisions can no longer be made against a logic of individual cost-benefit. The other is that you become part of a bleeding hearts club, and the reasons for which your heart bleeds can range, as noted above, from a swing-fall scratch to a lost game and a missed opportunity to things far more serious and impossible to anticipate.

Becoming a parent also teaches you to appreciate your own parents much more. All those times when you didn't think to call when a party lasted an hour longer than you had asked permission for. Or when you shouted back "you don't understand!" --you could never know that a parent may not understand the specific reasons for your own heartbreak, but most might know how you feel.

Becoming a parent means becoming vulnerable for life.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Vegetarian Dining in Korea!

I'm just back from a gastronomic experience--I threw the challenge of "vegetarian" at my Korean hosts and they came up trumps! In fact, it would have been a vegan delight--I only wish I had a better memory for the names of all the dishes they served.

"Authentic Korean" to tell you the truth, aroused a little trepidation. I set out expecting to have nothing more than some tofu and greens and maybe some rice (after verifying that it was not cooked in a meat broth) with the inevitable khimchi of which I am told there are hundreds of varieties.

They ushered the few vegetarians in the group to a table at the end of the long room, where we sat crosslegged and were served in the customary style by long-skirted Korean hostesses. After a generous pot of rice wine (which must be vigorously stirred before it is ladled out into earthen bowls) that apparently is more potent than it looks or tastes. The jolly group of Slavs to our left got jollier as the evening wore on, helped by the rice wine and a local drink known as Baekseju or the "100 years wine" made from, I am told, rice, ginseng and many other roots and herbs. It's quite delicious and goes very well with the spicy vegetables that we were served.

And that was quite an array. We started off with a platter of mushrooms, followed by a spicy capsicum and chilli dish, cold glassy noodles and sprouts of different kinds, soybean curd, a savoury mungbean pancake and a mixture of barley and rice cooked in a segment of bamboo served with a spicy vegetable sauce (bibimpap). True, the meat-eaters among us had all of this and more--a variety of seafood, for instance--but for my palate, this was plenty.

The meal was rounded off by a cold pink drink made of sweet potato that was unexpectedly refreshing--I say unexpectedly because in India the sweet potato dishes I know are quite starchy (but still delicious).


Sunday, September 30, 2012

The unexpected kindness and incredible rudeness of strangers

We've all experienced the feeling. You're at a point when you think there is just no hope for us Indians; there is just too much poverty, too big a social and economic gap between sections of society, and just too little political commitment to set things right. There are too many cars on the road, too little public transport, too many potholes on the roads and too few spaces that allow safe transit for pedestrians. The lines are too long, people push too hard. Competition everywhere, from the classroom to the ticket counter at the railway station. The big picture is just too hard to take. And so we retreat to our little islands, in front of our television screens and computer monitors, into the even tinier interfaces of our mobile devices, playing games and being social in new and different ways.

Pull back, long shot, no getting away from it, we still need to negotiate the big bad world and all the people in it. So we set out each morning convinced that we're going to encounter pushiness, corruption, unpleasantness at every juncture.

To a large extent, we're proved right time and again. The honking on the streets has decreased but hasn't gone away. There are still an astonishing number of people who seem to want to get somewhere right now, and believe that the car in front of them is akin to a road block on their life path. The bus driver casually scrapes your left rear view mirror and goes on without a pause, believing he has the absolute right to use the road as he pleases. The driver of the swanky SUV behind you, who looks decidedly underage, honks non-stop at the red light, as you stay calm, telling yourself, "I will not budge until the signal turns green." And once it does, he swerves past you like a maniac.

At Secunderabad Railway Station, there are no lines to speak of at the single counter where they sell platform tickets. I have never been one to ask for separate queues for women but i must confess that when standing in a single line means having to put up with men jostling you from all sides, a certain fondness for that idea has been felt. So I reach the counter, somehow, and hand over the three rupees for a single platform ticket--"It is five rupees madam," the harrassed counter clerk says, "tender exact change please". I don't have the additional two rupees in change, and while I fish in my bag looking for the possibility of a wayward coin, someone else pushes his hand toward. There's a slight young man next to me who had moved to a side, having been told off by the counter clerk for not having five rupees in change. He quickly puts his hand across the counter and asks for two tickets as he hands the clerk his tenner. He gives me a ticket and smiles as he walks away. I'm stunned.

Of course, this is not the first time I've been the recipient of unexpected kindness from strangers. A complete unknown handed me five thousand rupees once when I was in the middle of a mob that gathered after my car hit a seven-seater auto rickshaw. Then there was the cheerful policeman who gave me a quarter to make a collect call at La Guardia Airport in New York--I was twenty one, had just landed from India, straight into a freeing new year's eve, no change in American money and as nervous as hell because I'd missed my connecting flight. When I tried to thank him, he said, "Hey, smile, it's new year's eve!"

Inside the railway compartment where I am dropping off my aunt, is more kindness. Co-travellers who share their dinner, or move aside to make room for that extra child or to hold the baby while the harried mother goes to wash up.

And ultimately, that's what gives you hope. Despite the filth on the streets and the bad behaviour of drivers, the corruption in politics and the mismanagement of public money, there is still kindness enough to go around.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Remembering Ja

Ja (right) with Maxine, at the Alternative Network meeting, 2004
I opened the newspaper this morning and way down at the bottom of page five was a small insert in remembrance of an old friend and sometime mentor, Janaki Iyer, known simply as "Ja" to many of us.  I myself took a decade or more to make the transition from "Mrs Iyer" to "Janaki" to a very hesitant "Ja"--the diminutive seemed not to do justice to a woman who in a very gentle and quiet way had touched so many people, young, old, and like myself, somewhere in between.

First, the specifics. Janaki was a teacher from start to finish. After many years of teaching in an upscale Bombay school, she moved to Hyderabad and, with an enthusiastic friend, started Ananda Bharati, a learning space for children of migrant labourers, in a small room in the YMCA, Tarnaka. Many of those children went on to join the mainstream school system and complete their secondary education; a few even obtained degrees. One of the first girls to be plucked off a sandpile by Ja and brought into Ananda Bharati now works with a handloom advocacy organization. Ja drew many other young people to her; software engineers with dreams beyond programming, University teachers in search of meaning outside theoretical lectures, homemakers who had kindness and talent to share (and spare). People were welcomed into the home she made with her husband, "Steve" or "Mr Iyer". The low green building named "Needa" (shade, in Telugu) saw many visitors and itinerant drop-ins for dosai and coffee. Steve's passion for music drew in others as well, those who wished to commune over a veena recital or discuss the intricacies of raaga and taala in Carnatic music.

I'm not quite sure when I met Ja, but it was most likely when I started working for Teacher Plus, in early 1989. My earliest memory of a one-on-one interaction was after my daughter Achala was born, later that year, when she dropped in to see us while Steve attended his veena lesson at Professor Vijayakrishnan's house on the CIEFL Campus. She was already grey-haired and a little bit arthritic, but in her attitude and mental energy, younger than most of my contemporaries. I became a regular at Needa and Ananda Bharati after that, attending most of the special days at the school and often stopping by for long conversations about just about anything. When I left for the US to do my PhD a couple of years later, she was one of a handful who insisted on inviting me for a going-away meal.

We kept in regular contact, a correspondence by snail mail, where I stayed abreast of developments at the school and kept her in step with my life. When I returned, I found that the Ananda Bharati community had grown and like Ja herself, welcomed all of us who felt similarly about education and social change and saw value in building and sustaining dialogue about related issues.

Conversations with Ja were always engaging; sometimes we were on the phone for close to an hour, talking about a variety of issues from what had happened in school with my daughters to a book I had read to ideas about politics and history.

But I suppose when the going is good, it never seems like enough. Not enough conversations, not enough meetings.

So when Ja passed away on September 16, 2006, although she had been released from protracted period of pain and indifferent health, it seemed like she had just not been around long enough. That we all still needed more of her.

Ananda Bharati, that remarkable little institution that Ja built, continues to foster the spirit of learning among children who might otherwise not find a space for themselves in school. The teachers there work and laugh with the young girls who work in the day time and rediscover their childhood in the afternoons. They learn to read and write, and, more importantly, fashion themselves into citizens of a complex and often unwelcoming polity.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

[Performative] public discourse


Ever since I got back from a Manthan lecture and discussion led by Arun Shourie I’ve been wondering about the nature of participation in such events: they are meant to make us think, open up lines of discussion and explore ideas in a way that they are laid bare, making visible the spaces and interconnections between them and the attitudes they lie/build upon. Mr Shourie, who, I must confess, was one of the heroes of my early journalistic dreams. His front pagers in the Indian Express of the immediate post-Emergency era fuelled my own ambitions and made me feel really proud to be part of a tribe that seemingly was out to catapult the country into a new era of honesty, transparency and fair and clean governance. I was much younger then and could be forgiven for my simple and uncomplicated faith in the power of the press.

Much water has passed under the many bridges that make up our fragile polity and I have revised my ideas somewhat, although I try to keep my ideals burnished and fresh.

But getting back to Mr Shourie and the discussion last night. As always, he was an entertaining speaker, peppering his acerbic comments with smart one-liners and punches aimed at the people we all love to hate (including quite a few that delightfully found their target in the image of Arnab Goswami). He trashed today’s media, hauled the politicians over hot coals, and told us what to do about it all. In “one word” (sic) he said, “you must read”. Go back to the original text, amass your own evidence from the hundreds of documents available in the public domain, and then make up your mind. That should be the stuff on which discourse is built. Not the inane panel discussions on prime time television (“switch it off,” he said) and not the repetitive headlines on our sold out newspapers. The smattering of journalists in the audience took heed, as was evident in some of the questions that emerged after he spoke.

At the end of it all, I realized, there wasn’t much that I had not heard from him in some other form in some other forum. But then, one has to recognize that being a public intellectual is hard work, and it is not always possible to say something new every time, or even to say it in new ways. To give Mr Shourie credit, he did follow his own advice to “be like a crocodile”--once you get something between your jaws, don’t let go. So repetition is good. It’s incumbent on those of us who want to bring about change to be persistent, and not flit from one cause to another like the mainstream media.

What got me thinking really was the Q & A after the talk. As in all such sessions, there were some “real” questions and some that seemed to be more about marking one’s presence in a public space and saying “listen, this is me, and I’m here, take note”. Which takes me to the point I wish to make. Agreed, whenever one communicates, there is an element of performance, of wanting to make one’s presence felt beyond just making a point or contributing to a conversation in some meaningful way. If we get too self conscious about it we end up retreating into total silence, and maybe missing the opportunity to direct discussion in ways it may not have moved. So participation is necessary. But what is (or should be) the nature and content of this participation? How do we decide whether what we have to say is of value in terms of information or perspective? How do we balance out the need to be seen and to be counted (much of the reason we actually do participate in such events) and the weight and value of what we have to say? Many of the questions/comments from the audience were in the nature of affirmations, a sort of “I’m with you, I hear you”. A few really did add a new dimension or raise a genuine doubt or concern that had not been voiced already. And some (more than a few) were more about self-affirmation than about discourse.

How then do we move beyond posturing and really engage in the content and direction of an issue so that it becomes a serious and dispassionate examination of its components? Can this really happen in a space where there is a stage and an audience and all the accouterments for a performance rather than a conversation? How do we remove the elements of staging and make such “events” true opportunities for even and open discussion?

Can meaningful discourse happen in public? How do we create public forums that are less theatrical and more participative?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Walking along the memory of a wall

It's one of those things that looms in your mind as you approach the city. If you've grown up reading Cold War spy novels it figures larger than life, mystery on either side and danger in the middle. You recall stories of people building tunnels and finding ways across No Man's Land hiding in improbable ways. And then you see the ghost of a wall on a bright summer day, nothing more than a double row of dark bricks that make a discontinuous line along the middle of a wide Linden-lined avenue.

Achala and I go hunting for Checkpoint Charlie, deciding to walk the 5 miles there instead of taking the faster-but-to-our-tourist-minds-more-complicated subway route. Despite faithfully following a map, we fail to make a couple of turns and end up a couple of miles off, and too tired to retrace our steps. We meet a couple who respond to our English with a Nordic smile and point to their watches to indicate it would take us an hour at least to get there. So we leave it for another day, and turn instead to find the comfort of a streetside cafe and nurse our fatigue with a Hugo.

Bernauer Strasse, the path of the wall

A memorial to families divided and reunited

Shadows of a memory?
Saturday morning, Prenzelauer Berg is getting ready for its weekly flea market in the park. What's significant about this park is that it runs along one of the most memorialised sections of the Wall, on Bernauer Street. "The Wall on Bernauer Street" is a museum along the west side of the street, using the sides of buildings and pieces of sidewalk in which are set the stories of people who lived in the apartment buildings that suddenly found themselves in a different country. One day the windows on their kitchens and bedrooms were boarded up and they could no longer look out on a world they knew.  Along this stretch of where the wall once stood, we walk while Felix cycles ahead of us, stopping at the storyboards, listening posts and wall-sized posters that tell the everyday stories of division. Of how, suddenly, a wall came up, almost overnight, and put families in two parts of an irreconciliable geography. Of how some of them tried to build tunnels underground and inched their way across the fifty feet of mined territory to find what they thought would be freedom. Of how a woman dived three stories down, out of her apartment on the East side, hoping to land safe on the other side. The Wall Museum also documents the larger story of the divided Germany and the Cold War politics that fueled the paranoia on either side.

The Wall itself is practically non-existent. In the days following the first opening up in November 1989, people from all over the world carried bricks away like pieces of history to their personal archives. Some bits have been preserved or reconstructed, and today, against the growing city, it seems nothing more than a poignant reminder of an idea that kept people apart and generated fear for three decades.

On a blue and green spring day history can seem like nothing.

We finally did make it to Checkpoint Charlie, and I got to pay a brief homage to my memory of Le Carre novels.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Book Tree and other Leaving Stories


We had just been let off by the taxi at the corner of the block in the Prezelauer district of Berlin where my friend Elfriede lives. Dragging our 20-kilo loads along, my daughter and I trudge along the street toward her house. I have my eyes on the sidewalk and almost bump into a tree trunk—and look up to find it’s not. In the roughly carved recesses of what was once a tree, are bookshelves, the books inside protected by curved glass that could be opened with a push. No locks and no latches. The books look well thumbed and put there by caring hands, not just discarded after a quick read. Later, Elfriede explains it to us. People in the neighbourhood drop off books they have read and would like to share.  Others pick them up, or just leaf through them while sitting at the café next door, sometimes leaving another book in exchange. 

Charming idea.

A lovely woman I meet at dinner later in the week tells me that if she finishes a book while she’s on the Underground (she lives in London), she leaves it on the train for someone to pick up and read. If she still has some way to go before her stop, she moves to another spot and watches to see if someone will pick it up. “It feels good to share something you’ve read with someone else, even a complete stranger,” she says. Sometimes, of course, a person will look at the book and put it back down. "It's interesting to see what kind of person will actually take it to read," she adds.

And another friend talks about books left behind at the women’s hostel she visits, books residents are done reading and have no wish to pack into their transcontinental luggage. She’s often found great reads among these discarded collections, and has replenished the lot with her own once-read books. So the shelves in the hostel are a constant surprise—the books do a merry go round, and each time she passes the shelf she finds something new and interesting.

I, on the other hand, find it awfully difficult to part with books. I hoard them. The stories they hold within their covers are themselves embedded within stories of my life and relationships. Gifts from friends. Memories of moods and conversations. Contexts of giving and taking. The jackets often hold dedications that I would hate to discard.

And so my bookshelves groan under the weight of my acquisitions, usually gaining more pounds than they lose (I do keep losing books to defaulting borrowers from time to time). I love sharing my books with other avid readers, but I do want my books back. I find comfort in my very own hardback version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or my disintegrating copy of The Far Pavillions that my father bought for me on my 16th birthday from India Book House on Kingsway (a shop that no longer exists, on a street that is known by another name now).

I must say, though, that the thought of passing on good books has its appeal. To know that a story that one has enjoyed is being experienced by someone else, can be comforting. While I would certainly not be able to part with every single book on my shelves, there are some I would be happy to leave in the Book Tree, and maybe even on the subway…and it actually might be a thrill to know that someone has picked it up, smiled at lines that you’ve enjoyed, and cried at parts that have choked you up, and lived through the story in their own ways.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Where the wild things (always) are

I tuned into NPR's Fresh Air this morning (do you 'tune in' on the internet?) and looked to the list of stories on the right panel to find one I had not listened to earlier--an interview with Maurice Sendak on the occasion of the publication of Bumble Ardy. It was a great interview, conducted graciously as always by Terry Gross of Fresh Air. The interview itself made me think about a variety of things....the artistic imagination, the world of the child, death, relationships, fear and the whole host of things we all deal with as human beings. After listening to the interview, I went back to the home page and noticed something I had missed earlier--a special Fresh Air show dedicated to Sendak, on his death, just yesterday (May 8). The show features excerpts from several interviews with the children's author and illustrator, and reminiscences by other writers and journalists. From then on it was a short journey to discover the several other tributes paid in newspapers across the world. It was a strange feeling, to have listened to Sendak talking about how he was "ready" to die, and moments later, to learn that he had passed away.

I can't say very much more than all those people have already said in tribute to this extraordinary storyteller, who opened up the world of the child's imagination, tore it out of the goody-goody wrappings that the mid-twentieth century had imposed upon children's literature, and laid bare the fears, the visions and the perceptions that structure and stimulate children's worlds. Most of us who have read (or read out to our children) Sendak's books will recognize those elements from our own memories. The creatures that looked bizzarre to adult eyes were familiar to the child's eyes; they were the creatures that "went bump" in the night, or whose hairy hands crept up over the edge of the bed when parents were asleep. Sendak seemed to have kept alive his own childhood mind, the shadows on the window pane, the mysterious figures behind the curtains. The pictures in the books provided access to a visual journey that the words only hinted at.

While other storytellers have written stories free of the gloss and glitter that modern fairy tales seem to favour, Sendak was unique in combining the deepest fears of the six-year old imagination with an ever-present, mostly unconscious, hope and wonder. Terry Gross' conversations with Sandak reveal a person of deep humanity and a great sense of humour (how can you write for children and not have this?), someone who was keenly conscious of the effect of the adult world on the child--and how often we as adults forget what we ourselves felt as children confronted with an overwhelmingly adult world.

For more on Maurice Sendak and his wonderful work, check out these links:
The LA Times pays tribute
Bill Moyers about his time with Maurice Sendak
The Guardian interviews Maurice Sendak 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Galle Face

When you visit a place that has occupied your imagination in different ways, your experience is continually overlaid by the made-up pictures that you hold in your head, and you can't get away from a feeling of second sight. Shyam Selvadurai's Cinnamon Garden introduced me to Colombo through an evocative and heart-breaking story, its events and people set in a lovingly described landscape that took me through the streets of the city and the roads of the countryside in ways my physical travels will perhaps never surpass. So my all-too-brief visit to this city was spent looking around the corner for places I had already been to in the novel.

Other stories of course have also contributed to my imagined geography in less pleasant ways: news reports of the 26 years of conflict, the Channel 4 documentary that gave the term Killing Fields a different temporal and spatial setting, the UNHRC petition against Sri Lanka, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and so much else.

And then of course there are the "normalizing" accounts from my doctoral student Chamila who tells me in more prosaic and everyday terms of life in the country, the academic politics, and other details that render Sri Lanka in more familiar ways.

...

I had a lovely room facing the sea, and on my first (and only) morning in Colombo I took a walk, and this is what I wrote:



Walking along the beach
thoughts that wash over
my bouncy jagged steps
seem to take their cue
from the ululating rhythm
of the Indian Ocean.

It seems an unlikely moment
and place;
to think of peace and its aftermath
names like Killinochi, Anuradhapura
and of course the wartip
of Jaffna

Places that have existed
only in stories
by embedded journalists
and in war cries
of contesting politicians
take on a shape.

They dot themselves
in my map of meaning
in the faces of the soldiers who still stand guard
in the headlines of the paper left at my door, and
in the voice of the trishaw driver
who asks me if I speak Tamil.

I am just a working tourist
with no claim to knowledge or empathy
faced with this opaque history
lit by fiction and newsfact.
So answering in the affirmative
implicates me...in the only way possible.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

In-between books

There's a half read book in the seat pocket in my car: Andra Levy's "Long Song". There's a volume by Tehmina Aman gathering dust next to the bed. And there's a third, dust-jacket-covered, few-times-opened copy of Philip Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" on my desk. All this quite apart from the many bought-and-waiting-to-be-read books on the shelves, pushed further back each time I go to the bookstore and emerge defeated, two more under my arm.

I'm sure many of us have experienced this space between stories, the hiatus between books. You finish one, are overwhelmed by the craft of the writer and the sweep of the story, and wallow in the imagination of a brilliant writer, wondering if it will be surpassed, and knowing full well it will. There are many others awaiting your attention but you feel reluctant to break this spell, to enter into yet another world that has been painstakingly built for your occupation. Weeks go by and you realise suddenly that you haven't been reading. That you have let a month go by without picking up a book. For someone who simply MUST read in moments between doing such everyday things as cooking and eating and working and whatnot, this awareness is akin to being hit by a thunderbolt and a long rope of guilt extracted from the very depths on one's being (okay, I apologise for the rather convoluted yet graphic metaphor). So you quickly move to assuage the guilt, to fill with printed words the void created by non-reading. You devour magazines (of the decently long-form journalism variety), collections of short stories, Sunday supplements, and such...but the book still eludes your grasp. Somehow nothing seems to fit the bill. The hangover continues and you are unable to re-enter another imaginative world until the previous one has been completely exorcised from your consciousness.

All the three books I've mentioned above are extremely promising. I am close to finishing "Long Song" but the last verse refuses to recall me with sufficient energy. I need a little more time.

But I now know what I need to get through this in-between phase. Some good basic crime stories. Maybe I'll pick up another Inspector Wallander story. Now, that's more like it. I can enter the Swedish countryside without the kind of mental preparation required to immerse myself in Bangladeshi society or the post-human post-digital landscape of Dick's vision.

I know what I'm reading this weekend.